Longer Security Waits at Airports This Holiday Season

Dec. 22--Neither strike nor soaring oil costs will keep Americans from traveling in record numbers this holiday season, but their toughest obstacle may be at the nation's airports, where new security measures could mean even longer lines than usual, industry experts say.

Beginning today, airline passengers can carry on their nail scissors, screwdrivers and pliers, a change that Transportation Security Administration officials say will drastically reduce bag searches at security checkpoints and free them up to focus on bomb detection.

At the same time, however, screeners will randomly chose more passengers to undergo pat-downs and a swipe with the hand wand -- a move that some warn could backlog already lengthy holiday lines.

"Why they chose before the holiday season to implement these things defies logic," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents 400 companies. "Why wouldn't you do this on Jan. 2?"

The problem, Mitchell said, is that the holiday season is when inexperienced travelers who fly only once or twice a year flock to airports, backlogging security lines because they are unfamiliar with procedures. An estimated 8.75 million people plan to travel by airplane this holiday, up 1.6 percent from last year, according to AAA.

Add new random searches and it's a recipe for a holiday headache, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

"All in all, it's a formula for lots of delays and long lines," said Stempler, who urged airline passengers to budget extra time for travel.

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis disagreed, saying the increased searches were tested for a week at airports in Orange County, Calif., Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, with no increase in wait times.

The new searches will be performed randomly on passengers who don't set off the metal detector. They could include screening shoes for explosives, additional hand-wanding, a pat-down or a bag search. Pat-downs also will be expanded to include passengers' arms and legs.

"We don't anticipate that this is going to slow down the process," Davis said. "In fact, this is a simplified process, given these items are no longer prohibited."

According to the TSA, the newly approved nail scissors and other small tools make up one-quarter of the millions of items confiscated each year. TSA said allowing these items onboard will free screeners up to focus on detecting explosives.

During the summer, the TSA began reassessing its list of prohibited items and considered allowing larger items, such as bows and arrows and ice picks in carry-on bags. But earlier this month, the TSA announced the new changes would only include smaller scissors and tools. Items like box cutters, knives, ice picks and hammers remain banned.

Flight attendants have opposed the change, arguing the new objects allowed onboard are dangerous and will compromise their safety.

"Why would anyone need to bring small scissors or screwdrivers on board?" Pat Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, asked a Senate subcommittee earlier this month. The committee is reviewing the changes.

Despite the criticism of TSA's timing, many industry organizations support the changes, claiming that scissors and small tools could no longer be used to hijack a plane now that cockpit doors are locked and reinforced.

"You can't screen for everything all the time, " said Caleb Tiller, spokesman for the National Business Travel Association. "They have to really determine the things that are the greatest risk and go after those."

Still, some experts doubt that the changes will do much to keep passengers safer.

Douglas Laird, an aviation security consultant and former security director at Northwest Airlines, said the only way to detect for bomb parts on passengers is to conduct full body pat-downs or body scans.

Puffer machines, which detect traces of explosives on bodies, currently are being tested at six airports including Newark Liberty International.

"I think we're a little bit safer this Christmas than last," Laird said. "But these are just minimal improvements. They're not earth-shattering."